It was displayed on the wooden bookcase in the entrance way of the city library which was reserved for new books. The display was unmarked, near where the building’s security guard sat next to the front doors, no label and no sign, but the only thing to look at in front of the circulation desk.
At that time, I was freshly determined to read more women writers and I was reversing other habits of a lifetime, so I flipped the book open to the back, to see the author’s photo and bio, rather than to the front, to read the description on the jacket.
The author alone might have sounded interesting – I don’t remember – I borrowed a lot of books from that display (I remember Ellen Gilchrist’s and Lorrie Moore’s short stories, Tova Mirvis’ and Stacey D’Erasmo’s novels). But the book proved to be so-much-more-than-interesting. It provoked that kind of breathless admiration that translated into gushing and spirited insistences.
So when I began my Louise Erdrich reading project last year, I was a little anxious that, having read so much good fiction since, that I might be disappointed in that younger reading self, more easily impressed and enthusiastic, who had so loved this novel in particular. But The Last Report seems just as miraculous, nearly twenty years later.
In the context of Erdrich’s other stories, there is a richness here which I would not have appreciated then. But new readers could simply accept, for instance, the animosity between clans, just as Father Damian learns of and struggles against it. “Of course, Father Damien knew by now that the Kashpaws and Pillagers avoided the Morrissey and Lazarre camp. It had been his fruitless work to try to bring together the factions.”
Readers do not need to know the details of past sorrows and losses to see the devastation wracked in the present.
“What does that tell you about our so-called saint? Pauline was, of course, the warped result of all that twisted her mother. She was what came next, beyond the end of things. She was the residue of what occurred when some of our grief-mad people trampled their children. Yes, Leopolda was the hope and she was the poison. And the history of the Puyats is the history of the end of things. It is bound up in despair and the red beasts’ lust for self-slaughter, an act the chimookomanag call suicide, which our people rarely practiced until now.”
And Agnes’ bookishness is something to which many readers will immediately and heartfully relate.
“In the convent, she had not been permitted to read beyond her daily prayers and the lives of the saints. Now, with a town library full of volumes she’d never touched she became a reader. A wolfish, selfish, maddened hungry reader….” And, later in the story: “Out of the stacks of books, they made separate rooms. They stacked the books two by two, then crosswise, like bricks, into a wall.”
The importance of some cultural elements likely did not resonate with me in the same way on first reading, but I do remember being struck by the allegiances and divergences on matters of faith, between native spirituality and organized religion.
“Agnes’s struggle with the Ojibwe language, the influence of it, had an effect on her prayers. For she preferred the Ojibwe word for praying, anama’ay, with its sense of a great motion upward. She began to address the trinity as four and to include the spirit of each direction – those who sat at the four corners of the earth.”
It must have been at the heart of my love of this story, but I had forgotten about the love story in The Last Report. So it was an unexpected delight for me, as it was for the participants. This turned a chunky familiar novel into a pageturner for me once again.
“If we are cut off from God by sinning…why do I feel so close to God when I touch you in this darkness, in this cloud?”
Yes, there is still darkness in this story. And, yes, there are still big questions lurking.
“’Time is a fish,’ said Nanapush slowly, ‘and all of us are living on the rib of its fin.’”
However, as an entrance-way into Erdrich’s fiction, I recommend perching on the rib of this story.
LOUISE ERDRICH PROJECT
The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse (2000)
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)